Director Stephen Frears delivers a sparkling testament to dramatic license with "The Queen," a speculative depiction of the royal Windsor family’s thoughts and actions following Princess Diana’s death. To watch this film is to ride a fictionalized re-created shock wave of still-warm British history and — thanks to a miracle mix of adept filmmaking and stratospheric acting — to end up surprisingly affected.
Falling somewhere between classy fluff and gossipy art, the film succeeds as a political drama, a comedy of royal manners and a portrait of a modern-day monarch living in, for all purposes, the ice age.
Described by its screenwriter, Peter Morgan, as well-researched fiction, the 1997-set drama serves up dual real-life protagonists — Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) and Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) — with a focus on their contrary mind-sets surrounding Diana’s car-crash death.
The cloistered, clueless queen can’t comprehend the public’s grief over the death of the "people’s princess." Citing her former daughter-in-law’s status as an ex-royal, she issues no statement and remains secluded in Scotland.
The modern, image-conscious Blair deems such silence damaging to the monarchy. He persuades the queen to violate protocol and publicly acknowledge Diana’s loss.
For all its conjecture (royal bedroom conversations; Blair doing the dishes), the movie keeps its irreverence minimal, and sometimes its attempts at balance feel forced. It ultimately paints the queen and Blair too glowingly. Its tendency to satirize their values by turning their lower-stakes spouses into caricatures — a laughably old-worldish Prince Philip (James Cromwell); a shrilly liberal Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) — doesn’t satisfy.
But altogether, it’s a captivating look at life in the monarchical bubble.
Frears, a skilled, humanist storyteller whose credits include "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "The Grifters," dexterously combines politics, media frenzy, ludicrous palace rituals, private moments (the queen wearing a headscarf and driving a Land Rover!) and Diana footage into a drama of mood, urgency and humor.
Mirren, meanwhile, who happens to be the edgiest and most un-Elizabeth-like of the venerable British actresses, creates, behind her character’s face powder and a countenance reflecting a lifetime of duty-over-self, a protagonist so human that, regardless of whether she’s Her Majesty’s spitting image, she radiates truth. While Diana’s death gives the film hook, the queen’s wake-up call gives it soul, and, with Mirren aboard, there is not just a crisis of royalty, but also one of emotion going on.
The Queen ***½
Starring Helen Mirren, Michael Sheen, James Cromwell and Helen McCrory
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Stephen Frears
Running time 1 hour, 43 minutes